Second Sunday After Epiphany

The Marriage at Cana, 1923, 6 x 6.5 feet, by Winifred Knights (1899-1947) from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

January 16, 2022 Lectionary Texts – Year C
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
I Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11


I’ll just admit up front here… My choice of image for this week’s texts is an obscure one. As I perused the art suggestions at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, this one caught my attention. It struck me as something strange and different and that was my indicator to dig in.

The artist, a British woman, Winifred Knights, I had not heard of before. I was able to quickly get to know her via several well written articles following an art retrospective (an exhibit of an artist’s entire career) that took place in London in 2016 — a long overdue acknowledgment of her talent and unique approach to Christian art. Against cultural norms for women of the day, Winifred was able to attend art college in London and earned a scholarship to study in Rome where she took inspiration from certain Renaissance masters and the Italian countryside. The Marriage at Cana was a piece she began there, but never completed (note Christ’s incomplete hand and elements such as the jugs and many hands, feet and other features still in a sketched state).

Winifred painted only a handful of works in her short life (dying at age 47 of a brain tumor). She gained a excellent commission from Canterbury Cathedral to create an altarpiece on the life of Saint Martin of Tours. The project had Winifred wrestling over vision with the overseeing architect and took years to complete. The artist suffered a mental break after the Cathedral’s dean declared the coloration unsuitable and had it removed shortly after its installation (it has since been restored to its original alcove at Canterbury).

The Marriage at Cana spent years in the basement of the Tate Museum in London and later in an inaccessible stairwell until it was purchased for New Zealand. It is a strange modern interpretation of this well-known Biblical scene playing out as the guests eat dessert.

Watching the miracle unfold (though blocked from our view by the bent woman), the wedding guests’ facial expressions range from intensely curious to oblivious. Winifred herself appears at each of the three tables — she sits at center on the left side of the closest table. Her sister posed for the woman leaning over the jugs and other friends are here as well. Some guests wear modern clothing, others do not. Everyone is barefoot. A mother nurses her child.

The guest space spills out into a park where non-wedding guests relax and nap. A woman sketches. A stream flows at the bottom of the painting and through the park. Trees provide a canopy above. Colors are muted except for the the watermelon slices and one woman’s coral bead necklace.

This work is full of meaning and metaphor. The artist is exploring her personal life here as she sits at the closest table next to the man she was engaged to but later broke off the engagement. At the far table she sits next to her future husband. The woman nursing the baby is likely a reference to the close bond between Mary and Jesus. Mary is the woman wearing the bright beads — a symbol taken from Renaissance paintings indicating the droplets of Christ’s blood and his divine sacrifice.

I like this piece for its mysterious vibe. It invokes curiosity. It doesn’t all make sense, but then again neither does Christ’s response to his mother OR her instruction to the servants OR why this miracle in the first place… fine wine for a party that’s nearly over?

For you to ponder…

What do you make of the included park area and its relaxed folk?
How does this painting connect to the text in the Psalms passage?
Which facial expression/body language most aligns with where you find yourself spiritually these days?

Your strong love, O True God, is precious. All people run for shelter under the shadow of Your wings. In Your house, they eat and are full at Your table. They drink from the river of Your overflowing kindness. You have the fountain of life that quenches our thirst. Your light has opened our eyes and awakened our souls.

Psalm 36:7-9

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